By Zahoor Hussain
Getting booked under stringent anti-terrorism laws, summoned to security establishments – from counter-insurgency centers to police stations, beaten by security forces and landed in jails for doing normal stories or uploading posts on social media has become a ‘new norm’ for journalists in the trouble-torn Kashmir valley. But, despite all this they have not backtracked rather continue to bring out and tell the stories of Kashmir.
Gowhar Geelani, a well-known journalist and author in Kashmir, says that ‘intimidating tactics from any quarter won’t cow him down and he will continue doing his job with sound professional judgment.’
38-year-old Geelani and two other Srinagar based journalists, Peerzada Ashiq and Masrat Zahra, have been booked by the Jammu and Kashmir police. Police have slapped charges under stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against Geelani and Zahra for “glorifying terrorism and anti national activities”, “provoking the public to disturb the law and order” and “causing disaffection against the country” through social media posts. UAPA is an anti-terrorism law under which any person can be jailed for a period of two to seven years.
Peerzada Ashiq who reports for ‘The Hindu’ has been booked for “a fake news item regarding an encounter at south Kashmir’s Shopian district”. A case stands registered against him at Police Station Anantnag.
“Obviously, all the charges made against me are concocted and baseless. The aim is to silence all the remaining critical and sane voices and to criminalize opinions and journalism in Kashmir,” Geelani said in a Facebook post.
“As I have not yet formally received the copy of FIR and the so-called complaint received by the Cyber Police Station, I hope that police will provide the copy of the same to me without any delay, so that I can prepare my legal defence. I will surely cooperate with the investigation and am ready for the trial,” it reads.
Geelani, who has worked with Deutsche Welle as an editor for several years in Germany and has been published by BBC, Dawn and others, is known for vociferously voicing in favor of freedom of press.
J&K Police’s ‘Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone (Srinagar)’ in a statement on Tuesday said that it had received information through reliable sources that an individual namely ‘Gowhar Geelani’ is indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media platform which are ‘prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India.’
“The unlawful activities include glorifying terrorism in Kashmir valley, causing disaffection against the country and causing fear or alarm in the minds of public that may lead to commission of offence against public tranquility and the security of state,” police statement said.
“Several complaints have also been received against the said individual for threatening and intimidation. A Case FIR No. 11/2020 under the relevant sections of law has been registered at Cyber Police Station Kashmir and investigation initiated,” it added.
Gowhar Geelani in his Facebook post has said that all his life he has advocated non-violence, condemned violence in all forms and manifestations, stood for the rights of the people and free speech.
“Memory will win. Words are a writer’s weapons. All I have is: words. Let me assure one and all that journalism and words will stay and survive. Censorship won’t,” it further reads.
‘The Hindu’ reporter Peerzada Ashiq said that he is a responsible journalists and will not compromise with basic premise of journalism.
“I thank all those who came out in my support. It’s not easy to take a stand and express it publicly these days. I am a responsible journalist and will not compromise with the basic premise of journalism: speaking truth to power and sticking to facts. Holding a mirror is more than ever needed to reflect the ground realities from Kashmir, whether convenient or inconvenient. Nothing can deter us from holding the mirror up and close. I stand by my colleagues Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra. #Journalismisnotacrime#,” he said in a Facebook post.
Ashiq, has been booked for “a fake news item regarding an encounter at south Kashmir’s Shopian district”. His report was on two militants killed in an encounter last week. Two families had come forward to claim the bodies of the slain militants whom the authorities had said were unidentified. The administration had buried the slain militants in a graveyard in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, reserved for foreign and unidentified militants.
“Describing a report headlined ‘Kin allowed to exhume bodies of militants in Baramulla’ published by The Hindu on April 19 as ‘fake news,’ the Jammu and Kashmir police have registered an FIR in the matter,” reads a The Hindu report.
First to be booked under stringent UAPA was Masrat Zahra, a 26 year old freelance photojournalist whose work has appeared in publications like The Washington Post, TRT World, Al Jazeera, The New Humanitarian and others.
“Registering case under UAPA is very shocking for me. They want to suppress the voices of journalists in Kashmir. They know there are only few female journalists in the field,” Zahra told this reporter.
“They (police) are saying I am a Facebook user. They are not saying I am a journalist. As a journalist what I am supposed to upload? I am just uploading my archived work which I have clicked during the last few years, which I have witnessed here. I am not any social activist. I don’t have any political agenda. Being a journalist your ideology can’t work,” she added.
A statement, in which she was introduced as a ‘Facebook user’, by Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone (Srinagar) had said: “Police Station received information through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely Masrat Zahra is uploading anti national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquility. The Facebook user is also believed to be uploading photographs which can provoke public to disturb law and order. The user is also uploading posts that tantamount to glorify the anti-national activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country.”
“Accordingly, a case FIR No. 10/2020 U/S 13 UA (P) Act and 505-IPC dated 18-04-2020 stands registered in Cyber Police Station, Kashmir Zone, Srinagar and investigation set into motion,” statement further read.
Zahra, who was summoned for questioning on Monday, said: “I was questioned about a picture I had clicked in 2018. In that picture people can be seen carrying the photograph of Burhan Wani (slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander) in the Muharram procession. That picture has been published by an international publication.”
“My family has no knowledge about UAPA. If I am detained I won’t be able to meet my family. This will ruin my future. I wanted to highlight the issues being faced by the women throughout the world,” she added.
Geelani Moves High Court
Gowhar Geelani has moved to the Jammu and Kashmir High Court seeking quashing of an FIR registered against him. While hearing the petition on Friday, a single bench of High Court headed by Justice Ali Muhammad Magrey directed the government to file its response on the petition before the next date of hearing scheduled on May 20.
Appearing on behalf of the petitioner, counsel, Salih Peerzada submitted that Cyber police station has no jurisdiction to register and investigate offences under the UAPA. He has sort annulment of the FIR registered against Geelani, besides interim protection from arrest.
The filing of cases against the Kashmiri journalists under the ‘stringent laws’ by the J&K police have evoked a massive outrage with press bodies, journalists, common Kashmiris mostly social media users and some politicians and their parties have condemned the police action and have demanded withdrawal of cases.
Kashmir Press Club (KPC) in a statement condemned the police action and sort withdrawal of the FIR’s against Gowhar Geelani, Peerzada Ashiq and Masrat Zahra.
“As already conveyed, the club on behalf of the fraternity will write a representation to the Press Club of India (PCI) detailing these issues and other grievances related to difficulties faced by media in their functioning during this pandemic. In this regard a memorandum will also be written to the highest authorities including the LG of the UT of J&K,” statement read.
“We hope the media fraternity which is working amid huge challenges should get a conducive atmosphere to deliver their day to day duties,” it added.
The Editors Guild of India has described the police’s decision to invoke the UA (P) Act against the journalists as a “gross misuse of power”, saying it is “an indirect way of intimidating journalists in the rest of the country as well”.
“Any recourse to such laws for merely publishing something in the mainstream or social media is a gross misuse of power. Its only purpose can be to strike terror into journalists. The Guild also believes that this is an indirect way of intimidating journalists in the rest of the country as well. The journalists should be put to no harm or further harassment,” a statement by Editors Guild read.
“The Guild demands that the Union Territory administration of Jammu & Kashmir withdraw the charges forthwith,” it added.
Global human rights watchdog Amnesty International also demanded that the government should stop “intimidation” of journalists in the Kashmir valley.
Amnesty International India Executive Director Avinash Kumar in a statement said: “Harassment and intimidation of journalists through draconian laws such as UAPA threatens the efforts to address the Covid-19 pandemic and creates an atmosphere of fear and reprisal.”
The Kashmir Working Journalists Association (KWJA) in a statement issued on Wednesday said that journalists in Kashmir won’t succumb to tactics of thought policing and intimidation.
“Authorities in Kashmir are in no mood to allow a democratic dissent or expression of opinion, and have adopted the policy of muzzling the press as a governance measure. However, we would like to remind them that the efforts to silence the press, and by extension of the populace, will only prove counterproductive. Journalists will not succumb to the tactics and will continue to hold the authorities accountable, statement read.
Senior journalist Yusuf Jameel, while mocking the police action, said in a tweet: “Hello, this is Yusuf Jameel….that is end of the news. Is that what they want from us?”
“Today is Tuesday, according to the highly placed sources in the government. At least three calendars and two alarm clocks also validated. Story ends. ;-),” Gowhar Geelani had tweeted before being booked.
According to the KPC, ‘Kashmiri journalists’ are facing continuous harassment despite the fact they are working in a tough situation and have limited access to the internet.
In the first week of this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a global body for press freedom, launched an online petition for the immediate release of imprisoned Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan who is imprisoned in Central Jail Srinagar since August 2018 despite repeated calls for his release from human rights groups and international journalist bodies.
Police booked him under the UAPA for his involvement in militant activities, a charge denied by his family. Asif has a wife and a two-year-old daughter at home. She was barely 6 months when her father was arrested.
Meanwhile, Qazi Shibli, a south Kashmir based journalist, was released after nine months from Bareilly District Jail, Uttar Pradesh, on Thursday.
Shibli was arrested in July last year, a week before the government imposed clampdown and communication blackout in the valley ahead of the Central government scrapped the erstwhile state’s special status and bifurcated into two Union Territories: J&K and Ladakh.
“Shibli graduated in journalism from Bangalore University and his writing has been featured in multiple national and international publications. He was the editor of The Kashmiriyat news website,” The Kashmir Walla report said on Thursday.
Inspector General of Kashmir Zone Police, Vijay Kumar, said that only one journalist has been questioned about a journalistic work as only one FIR of ‘instigating people for violence’ has been registered over an encounter in Shopian at Police Station Anantnag while as remaining 2 persons have not been booked for any journalistic work of their’s but because of the reason that they have posted explicitly ‘seditious, incendiary and incriminating texts on social media, challenging sovereignty and integrity of India and attempting to instigate people for violence.’
According to the IGP, J&K Police have always maintained highest regard for freedom of press but media persons and other relevant organizations are expected to issue statements only after ascertaining the facts.
“IGP Kashmir appeals the members of journalist/ media fraternity not to publish fake/ fabricated news/ stories, which has bearing on security of the nation and which has the potential of causing social instability and can lead to law and order problem,” a police statement issued on April 20 read.
Zahoor Hussain is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir.